The capital of Slovenia, Ljubljana (loo-bl-anna) is one of Europe’s lesser-known cities and is just a 2 hour flight from London. It’s a pretty beautiful flight too, with the Swiss Alps and Slovenia’s pine-lined lakes visible through the fluffy white clouds. Surrounded by places like Austria, Croatia, Hungary, Switzerland and Italy, it’s a smorgesboard of cuisines, cultures and c-scenery. Think pastry, pasta and ice cream. Castles and a talented creative community. Plus pretty architecture, lakes, countryside and mountains. Ljubljana really does have it all, and it’s still relatively un-touristy (with the added plus, that most Slovenians under 50 speak English).
Last month, Alex and I ventured to Ljubljana for a three day break. When we arrived at Ljubljana airport we were helpfully directed straight to the buses. We had however done a little research, and sought out the shuttle buses instead. For the same price as the bus, and much less than a taxi, Ljubljana’s shuttle buses seat about six people and will ferry you to the door of your destination, dropping other passengers off on the way. We booked our accommodation through Airbnb as we often do now, and our lovely host Sasa was waiting to greet us. Our one-bed penthouse apartment was absolute perfection, with a huge terrace and gorgeously modern rooms. Take a look here.
After a quick unpacking session (see: nap), we pulled on our coats (unnecessary – the weather was superb) and headed towards Ljubljana’s main square. A 15 minute walk through a park, past churches, shops and restaurants took us to Dragon Bridge, which is so called after the fire-breathing symbol of the city. There are two theories as to how Ljubljana got its mythical coat of arms; it either came from Greek legend, the story of brave young Jason the Argonaut returning home with the Golden Fleece and being met by a lake between Vrhnika and Ljubljana, where he struck down a monster, which in the telling and re-telling of the story, has become a dragon. Alternatively, and according to the talk we were later given at the Museum of Slovenia, it’s believed that the dragon was adopted from Saint George (yep, that one) who we learned is the patron of Ljubljana Castle chapel. In that story, the dragon is a symbol of paganism, which was cleansed by Christianity. Either way, dragons are cool, no?
At Dragon Bridge we purchased our first pastry at a little deli on the corner. Ljubljana is revered for it’s pastries (and ice cream, and bread, and meat, and pasta and..) and I’d already had it on good authority that we needed to try the three variations of their staple snack, which is a light, crisp and squidgy pastry parcel, either straight or swirled, and filled with either meat, potato or cheese. We started with cheese and were very pleased with the salty, moreish offering. There may have been an apple and caramel ‘pudding’ to finish too, but I can’t say for sure… Onwards, we explored the length of the river which runs through Ljubljana’s centre, taking in the brightly coloured buildings and beautiful architecture, which isn’t dissimilar to Amsterdam and Venice.
It was getting late so we decided to round things off with a quick carafe of Slovenian red wine before finding some tea. There are so many options when it comes to eating and drinking in Ljubljana and you won’t need to spend alot to have a good time. This particular carafe cost just 6 euro. For tea, Alex picked a rustic looking bar/restaurant, which I was personally not sold on, having been greeted by a giant wooden Dolmio-like character holding a carving of a bottle of wine, plus a menu with photographs of the food inside. At home, my one restaurant-picking rule is not to eat in places that show you what the food looks like. Unless you are very drunk and need a kebab. Kebab photos don’t count. I was wrong to judge, because Gostilna Sokol was fantastic.
We initially enjoyed (another) carafe up at the wooden bar, but once I’d loosened up, taking in the beer kellar-type vibe, dark decor, traditionally dressed waiters and booth seating filled with happy Slovenians, I was quick to ask for a menu and table in the middle of things. The options were on the right side of hearty, involved lots of meat and bread and came with a great selection of sides like sauerkrawt, dumplings and layered vegetable casserole. We had a generous bread bowl to start and then I plumped for the venison goulash served in a bread bowl (yes, that’s a bowl, made of BREAD!) and Alex went for a Kranjska sausage (kind of like a Brühwurst) with cabbage and chips. Plus another carafe of red. Slovenian red wine isn’t the most delicate, but it is very drinkable. And it’s cheap. Total cost for the meal? 30 euro.
Ready for an early night, we wandered back to our apartment via our local Aldi (called Hofer in Slovenia) to pick up some bits for breakfast.. and some more wine. We were on holiday, okay! Word of advice: don’t get so excited by the unusual things in a foreign supermarket that you get to the checkout one minute past the hour at which they stop allowing you to buy alcohol. That’s 9.30pm. No wine for us.
Up bright and early (mostly because I find it hard to sleep with a view like this waiting outside for me!), we had Hofer yoghurts on the terrace and walked back into town. Of course, we still had two more of those infamous pastry flavours to try, so couldn’t walk past the first deli without picking up a potato one. Really tasty, but really salty. And very filling. Alex picked up a machiato too but wouldn’t recommend Ljubljana’s coffee offering on the whole – the milk tastes a bit weird!
After our quick pastry pitstop in the sunny square we headed for Ljubljana Castle. There is a lift that takes you up the hill which the castle sits on, but we decided to justify all of the wining and dining by walking up. Leaving from the centre meant the first half of the journey was up a pretty cobbled street, with plenty of opportunities to stop and look out over the sloped forest and the dwindling city in the distance. The view was really lovely, but nothing compared to the top, which we reached in about 20 minutes. You can walk around the outside of the castle and much of the inside, where there’s a beautiful courtyard with a cafe and restaurant and a couple of old dungeons and rooms to explore. It’s just 7 euro each to see the rest of the castle, which includes the Viewing Tower, which provided the most stunning Insta fodder and also the Virtual Castle, which is an hourly cinema experience wherein George’s dragon takes you through the story of the castle and a bit of Slovenian history while he’s at it. Lastly, there’s the Museum of Slovenia, which is pretty state of the art with interactive info and big screens explaining all of the artefacts. We learned alot, including the fact that Ljubljana only became the center of independent Slovenia in 1991. Who knew?
After a few hours of exploring Ljubljana castle and it’s surroundings, we walked back down the hill where a market had set up camp, full of fresh fruit and vegetables. Each stall was better than the next and we were offered lots of samples. The giant, juicy strawberries we tried were too hard to resist, so we bought a whole kilo punnet. I’d like to blame the language barrier, but the man who served us spoke in perfect English. Sitting on the river in 16 degree sunshine, watching the world go by and eating strawberries was definitely one of my highlights of Ljubljana.
That afternoon we stayed by the river, sipping fresh lemonade and sampling a meat and cheese platter at a local restaurant that looked out onto the bridge. Followed by what is quite possibly the best ice cream ever consumed in the sweetest patisserie slash gelato house slash bar I’ve frequented (Cacao, check it out), we headed home to chill out in front of Slovenian cooking shows before taking approx three million pictures of the sunset from our balcony. The Slovenian’s love a bit of Jamie Oliver FYI!
For tea, Alex wanted to explore the less ‘pretty’ side of Ljubljana. He’s an experienced traveller and is rarely satisfied with the picturesque and tourist-friendly sides of towns we visit, so he took us off some winding streets, where jolly locals drank beer outside under heaters with a backdrop of urban art. We found a great spot outside one and Alex ordered a bottle of wine at the bar. Only, they don’t tend to sell wine by the bottle in Ljubljana, it’s all about glasses and carafes, but not wanting to disappoint us, the bartender sold us a litre bottle of the red wine they use to fill up the carafes. For just 11 euro, we weren’t complaining. Post-vino we ventured back to the area we’d pinpointed some nice-looking restaurants and asked for a table at a very light and modern-looking restaurant just a few doors down from Gostilna Sokol. It was a totally different vibe to the previous night’s eating establishment but still really good. We had a selection of parma ham and mozzerella to start (we hadn’t had enough cold meat and cheese in the afternoon, you see) and I had duck in cherry sauce with pasta, while Alex went for the Slovenian’s take on cordon bleu. My pictures are not worthy of the www from this night as the litre bottle we had earlier and the drinks I’m pretty sure I remember having with dinner too hampered my photography skills somewhat. But take my word for it that it was really lovely and really affordable. Total price? 35 euro. We wrapped things up soon after, feeling very full and quite tired. And drunk.
Our second to last day in Ljubljana started casually with scrambled eggs and avocado on toast on the terrace, with a side of those delicious strawberries. It was really nice to be able to eat outside at the table and chairs on Sasa’s terrace and super easy to prepare food in her well-equipped kitchen. I swear, I’m not on commission, but I do love Airbnb! After our fill of fruit, we headed to the bus station to take a coach to Lake Bled. The station was a 20 minute walk from the apartment and took us past some of Ljubljana’s famed squats-turned-arts-areas. It was daytime so just looked like a load of abandoned buildings and big walls and watch tower type construction, covered from top to bottom with vibrant graffiti. At night, I’m told, areas like these turn into quite the party, where creative types gather to create and drink. At the bus station there are information desks with helpful English-speaking staff, but top tip, if you just hop on the right bus and manage to communicate with the driver, the ticket to Lake Bled is a bit cheaper via him/her. Another top tip: the driver doesn’t shout out the bus stops, so ask if s/he’ll let you know when you get to Bled. We didn’t do this and ended up getting off a stop too early and having to run after the coach and luckily be let back on!
I’d been recommended Lake Bled by several people when I announced our trip to Ljubljana, so knew we had to go and see if Bled Castle really did look like something from Walt Disney’s imagination. I can confirm, it does. Positioned in the middle of the lake, which is itself surrounded by the most beautiful tree-lined path and forest, which sits in front of snow-topped mountains, it’s simply stunning. It took us about 2 hours to walk all the way around the lake since it was a beautiful day and we could really take our time, snap lots and stop off for a drink on the way. If you’re into your cycling, there were lots of people on two wheels too and tons of keen photographers. There are also lots of lovely hotels at Lake Bled, so if you fancy extending your stay, I reckon a night in one of those would be delightful. Once you get back to the beginning, head back up the hill the coach dropped you off at and before you get to it, you’ll find someone running a shuttle car service. It’s the same price as the coach back and while the coach took 2 hours to get us to Bled, the shuttle car took just over 30 minutes to get us back to the station, so it’s a no-brainer really.
Shattered from a long day walking, we headed home for our last supper. Normally on our last night somewhere we’d splash out and go somewhere a bit fancy, but we were having such a good time for such a good amount of money, we challenged ourselves to eat on what we had left (about 25 euro), leaving us with just enough for coffees at the airport in the morning. The place we chose, Julija, looked quite up-market and did have some of the more expensive options of the holiday but our choice of truffle gnocchi for me and pork knuckle for Alex, as well as a glass of rose, came to just 20 euro. A final ice cream on the walk home (back at Cacoa, naturally) sealed the deal on an incredible few days in peaceful, picturesque Ljubljana.